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    Dunstone's Dear Lady

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    Chapter 19
    Previous Chapter
    The story of Dunstone is so slight, so trivial in its cardinal
    incidents, such a business of cheap feathers and bits of ribbon on the
    surface, that I should hesitate to tell it, were it not for its
    Inwardness, what one might call the symbolism of the thing. Frankly, I
    do not clearly see what that symbolism is, but I feel it hovering in
    some indefinable way whenever I recall his case. It is one of those
    things that make a man extend his arm and twiddle his fingers, and say,
    blinking, "Like _that_, you know." So do not imagine for one moment that
    this is a shallow story, simply because it is painted, so to speak, not
    in heart's blood but in table claret.

    Dunstone was a strong, quiet kind of man--a man of conspicuous
    mediocrity, and rising rapidly, therefore, in his profession. He was
    immensely industrious, and a little given to melancholia in private
    life. He smoked rather too many cigars, and took his social occasions
    seriously. He dressed faultlessly, with a scrupulous elimination of
    style. Unlike Mr. Grant Allen's ideal man, he was not constitutionally a
    lover; indeed, he seemed not to like the ordinary girl at all--found her
    either too clever or too shallow, lacking a something. I don't think
    _he_ knew quite what it was. Neither do I--it is a case for extended
    hand and twiddling fingers. Moreover, I don't think the ordinary girl
    took to Dunstone very much.

    He suffered, I fancy, from a kind of mental greyness; he was all subtle
    tones; the laughter of girls jarred upon him; foolish smartness or
    amiable foolishness got on his nerves; he detested, with equal
    sincerity, bright dressing, artistic dabbling, piety, and the glow of
    health. And when, as his confidential friend--confidential, that is, so
    far as his limits allowed--I heard that he intended to marry, I was
    really very much surprised.

    I expected something quintessential; I was surprised to find she was a
    visiting governess. Harringay, the artist, thought there was nothing in
    her, but Sackbut, the art critic, was inclined to admire her bones. For
    my own part, I took rather a liking to her. She was small and thin, and,
    to be frank, I think it was because she hardly got enough to eat--of the
    delicate food she needed. She was shabby, too, dressed in rusty
    mourning--she had recently lost her mother. But she had a sweet, low
    voice, a shrinking manner, rather a graceful carriage, I thought, and,
    though she spoke rarely, all she said was sweet and sane. She struck me
    as a refined woman in a blatant age. The general effect of her upon me
    was favourable; upon Dunstone it was tremendous. He lost a considerable
    proportion of his melancholia, and raved at times like a common man. He
    called her in particular his "Dear Lady" and his "Sweet Lady," things
    that I find eloquent of what he found in her. What that was I fancy I
    understand, and yet I cannot say it quite. One has to resort to the
    extended arm and fingers vibratile.

    Before he married her--which he did while she was still in
    half-mourning--there was anxiety about her health, and I understood she
    needed air and exercise and strengthening food. But she recovered
    rapidly after her marriage, her eyes grew brighter, we saw less of
    Sackbut's "delicious skeleton." And then, in the strangest way, she
    began to change. It is none of my imagining; I have heard the change
    remarked upon by half a dozen independent observers. Yet you would think
    a girl of three-and-twenty (as she certainly was) had attained her
    development as a woman. I have heard her compared to a winter bud, cased
    in its sombre scales, until the sun shone, and the warm, moist winds
    began to blow. I noticed first that the delicate outline of her cheek
    was filling, and then came the time when she reverted to colour in her
    dress.

    Her first essays were charitably received. Her years of struggle, her
    year of mourning, had no doubt dwarfed her powers in this direction;
    presently her natural good taste would reassert itself. But the next
    effort and the next were harder to explain. It was not the note of
    nervousness or inexperience we saw; there was an undeniable decision,
    and not a token of shame. The little black winter bud grew warm-coloured
    above, and burst suddenly into extravagant outlines and chromatic
    confusion. Harringay, who is a cad, first put what we were all feeling
    into words. "I've just seen Dunstone and his donah," he said. Clearly
    she was one of those rare women who cannot dress. And that was not all.
    A certain buoyancy, hitherto unsuspected, crept into her manner, as the
    corpuscles multiplied in her veins--an archness. She talked more, and
    threw up a spray of playfulness. And, with a growing energy, she began
    to revise the exquisite æsthetic balance of Dunstone's house. She even
    enamelled a chair.

    For a year or so I was in the East. When I returned Mrs. Dunstone amazed
    me. In some odd way she had grown, she had positively grown. She was
    taller, broader, brighter--infinitely brighter. She wore a diamond
    brooch in the afternoon. The "delicious skeleton" had vanished in
    plumpness. She moved with emphasis. Her eye--which glittered--met mine
    bravely, and she talked as one who would be heard. In the old days you
    saw nothing but a rare timid glance from under the pretty lids. She
    talked now of this and that, of people of "good family," and the
    difficulty of getting a suitable governess for her little boy. She said
    she objected to meeting people "one would not care to invite to one's
    house." She swamped me with tea and ruled the conversation, so that
    Dunstone and I, who were once old friends, talked civil twaddle for the
    space of one hour--theatres, concerts, and assemblies chiefly--and then
    parted again. The furniture had all been altered--there were two "cosy
    nooks" in the room after the recipe in the _Born Lady_. It was plain to
    me, it is plain to everyone, I find, that Mrs. Dunstone is, in the sun
    of prosperity, rapidly developing an extremely florid vulgarity. And
    afterwards I discovered that she had forgotten her music, and evidently
    enjoyed her meals. Yet I for one can witness that five years ago there
    was _that_ about her--I can only extend my arm with quivering digits.
    But it was something very sweet and dainty, something that made her
    white and thoughtful, and marked her off from the rest of womankind. I
    sometimes fancy it may have been anæmia in part, but it was certainly
    poverty and mourning in the main.

    You may think that this is a story of disillusionment. When I first
    heard the story, I thought so too. But, so far as Dunstone goes, that is
    not the case. It is rare that I see him now, but the other day we smoked
    two cigars apiece together. And in a moment of confidence he spoke of
    her. He said how anxious he felt for her health, called her his "Dainty
    Little Lady," and spoke of the coarseness of other women. I am afraid
    this is not a very eventful story, and yet there is _that_----That very
    convenient gesture, an arm protruded and flickering fingers, conveys my
    meaning best. Perhaps you will understand.
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